Hall & Assocs. v. EPA, No. 13-823, 2015 WL 1149893 (D.D.C. Mar. 16, 2015) (Chutkan, J.)
Re: Request for records concerning EPA decisions to limit nitrogen discharge into Great Bay Estuary
Disposition: Granting in part and denying in part defendant's motion for summary judgment; granting in part and denying in part plaintiff's motion or summary judgment
- Litigation Considerations, Adequacy of Search: The court holds that "EPA . . . conducted 'a search reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents.'" The court finds that defendant's "declaration 'describe[s] in ... detail what records were searched, by whom, and through what process'" and that "EPA asked every individual involved with the [portion of the request at issue] to provide responsive documents, and 'it is reasonable for an agency to limit its search to asking staff members familiar with all aspects of a government program to find the relevant documents.'" Additionally, the court finds that "[plaintiff's]] argument that EPA's response to the . . . [r]equest is facially deficient based solely on the small number of documents provided is unpersuasive." "Under the FOIA, the Court does not question 'whether there might exist any other documents possibly responsive to the request, but rather whether the search for those documents was adequate.'" Also, the court finds that plaintiff's argument that "because [certain] documents appear (in [plaintiff's] own estimation) to be responsive to the . . . [r]equest, they should have been found earlier, and therefore EPA's search was inadequate" fails because "[t]his is not how a court is to evaluate the adequacy of an agency's search."
- Procedural Requirements, Proper FOIA Requests: The court holds that "EPA is . . . ordered to process [one set of] [r]equests as modified by [plaintiff's] . . . letter . . . and either disclose any responsive records or claim an exemption." The court relates that "[plaintiff's] . . . [r]equests, as originally formulated, were not proper requests." The court explains that the "requests quoted a statement from [a] May 4 Letter accusing [a region of EPA] of science misconduct, and asked EPA to provide all documents proving that statement wrong." The court finds that "[w]hile the requests nominally requested documents, EPA properly construed them as not adequately describing the records sought, and EPA thus had no obligation to process the . . . [r]equests as originally worded." However, the court also finds that "EPA did not tell [plaintiff] what additional information it needed to provide, and did not give [plaintiff] 'an opportunity to discuss and modify' the requests, instead only notifying [plaintiff] of its right to appeal." Despite this fact, the court notes that plaintiff modified its request to "all pre-existing records which contained analysis or opinions in conflict with the allegations at issue." The court finds that "[f]or reasons the EPA has not explained, it ignored in its final response (and ignores now) this reformulation." Therefore, the court holds that EPA "failed to follow its own FOIA regulations" and must process these modified requests. The court also orders that "[i]f EPA believes the requests as amended are still not sufficiently clear, it must allow [plaintiff] to further clarify or modify the requests."